Thursday, March 07, 2013

Culturalism and Korea's Suicide Rate

Here is a leftover thought from the series on suicides in Korea, which just concluded. 

In the last post, the Korean noted that a frequent objection to his overall thesis of the series--i.e., that Korea's high suicide rate is the result of a violent social change since the 1997 financial crisis--is that there has to be something "cultural" about the reason why Korea has such high suicide rate. In the last post, several commenters raised this same objection, that there just gotta be something cultural about Korea's suicide rate. One commenter suggested that it may be Korea's relatively strict gender roles, occasioned by Korea's adherence to Confucianism. Another commenter suggested that it may be Korea's emphasis on "saving face."

Those explanations cannot be correct, and throughout the series, the Korean explained why they cannot be correct.  First, Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the industrial world in the 1980s. If Korean culture is to blame for Korea's high suicide rate, why would Korea's suicide rate change at all? Or to the extent it changes, why would the rate ever fall below the international average? Second, every single industrialized country in the history of the world experienced a huge spike in suicide rate in the process of industrializing, and later the country industrialized, the higher the spike. Korea is following this exact same trend--it industrialized very late, and therefore the spike in suicide rate is the highest in the world. If Korea is merely following this global, historical trend, why would Korean culture play any role?

At best, the only way the Korean could see how Korea's suicide rate is "cultural" is in a temporally restrained sense of the word "cultural":  that is, in the 15 years since the 1997 financial crisis, Korean people so repeatedly responded to the difficult conditions caused by the financial crisis that the repeated response (in this case suicide) attained a certain status of normalcy, such that one can fairly say that "suicide became a part of the culture in Korea in the last 15 years or so." But other than in that sense, I think the "cultural" explanation for Korea's suicide rate is rubbish. Any theory that resorts to any particular features of Korean culture--Confucianism, face-saving, respect for hierarchy, han, whatever--to explain Korea's high suicide rate cannot be taken seriously, because such theory cannot answer the two critical questions posed above.

Then why do so many people continue to resort to the "cultural" explanation? The Korean thinks this is another demonstration of the strong pull of culturalism. The Korean previously explained culturalism in this post:  essentially, it is the impulse to explain away the behavior of foreign people with "cultural difference," even when there is no reason to import culture into the discussion. It is the same force that blames the Chinese culture for being bad at soccer (although China is actually just fine at soccer) and the Japanese culture for being prone to nuclear power plant meltdowns (although one never hears about the American or British culture that led to the BP oil rig disaster in Louisiana.) No matter how smart one may be, and no matter how many counter-arguments there may be, the impulse to resort to "culture" as the magical agent that explains all just never goes away.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

49 comments:

  1. "If Korean culture is to blame for Korea's high suicide rate, why would Korea's suicide rate change at all?"

    I don't quite understand why this is seen to be such a difficult question to answer. I certainly do not know if culture that is special to the Koreans is primarily responsible for the high suicide rate, but assuming there is such a thing as Korean culture, is it not possible that Korean culture and late industrialization BOTH contributed in a perfect storm type of way (separately they contribute, but together they contribute even more because Korean culture and late industrialization together form a sort of "clash" of cultures) More to the point, one can ask, why is Taiwan's suicide rate almost half as low as South Korea even though it is also a late industrializing country?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Taiwan is much closer to the equator. http://chartsbin.com/view/prm
      Vitamin D levels.

      Delete
    2. The more I think about it, the more this theory of clash of civilizations makes sense to me. If Korea has traditionally put more far more emphasis on the value of social bonds than other societies, and if late industrialization acts to tear apart those social bonds no matter how strong they are, then you would expect that Korea would suffer more than other countries. Obviously this is a simplified view, but I think it's more plausible the the idea that culture essential to Korea has nothing to do with an entirely psycho social trend, which I would think is amenable to cultural influence.

      Delete
    3. JW - that theory does not answer question 2, though.

      Delete
    4. But Korean, how do you explain Taiwan's and Singapore's suicide rates being much lower than Korea's? If your conclusion is true, their suicide rates should be just as high as Korea's since they are late industrializing nations and developed around the same time as Korea.

      Delete
    5. "Or to the extent it changes, why would the rate ever fall below the international average?"

      But you already did sort of answer this question. Prior to the financial crisis, Korea was going through an unprecedencted economic boom in which everybody was making money. Certainly the positive economic and resulting social effect from such an unprecendented boom would work to offset any negative impact from the two systems coming together (or even cause the suicide rate/stress levels to become lower than the average). I don't see this as being mutually exclusive with my theory.

      Delete
    6. When it comes to demographics, Singapore (or any other country that is no more than a dot on the world map) is not a valid sample.

      As to Taiwan, it experienced a similar spike in suicide rate since 1993: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2259336/

      Delete
    7. JW - I should have clearer. By question no. 2, I meant: "If Korea is merely following this global, historical trend, why would Korean culture play any role?"

      Delete
    8. But it's not merely "following" a global historical trend. How many countries in their history of development have also seen their suicide rates exceed the 30 per 100,000 barrier? Korea is not merely following -- it is leading the race in this aweful category, and that requires us to at least try to come up with an explanation specific to Korea.

      Delete
    9. It is following the trend in a sense that, the later the industrialization, the higher the spike. Because Korea is the latest-industrialized country (or close to it) among all industrialized countries, Korea's spike is higher than other countries.

      Delete
    10. I responded below. Point taken about Singapore (although I do think internationalism in Singapore aka non-conformism to a homogeneous socity has something to do with it)... but I think Taiwan is interesting. Yes, industrialism causes spikes in suicide as shown by Taiwan as well (no one is disputing that) but is it as high as Korea's? No. Taiwan is nowhere near the top of the suicide rate. So what is it about Korea and Japan that make us more suicide prone when we become industrialized? I think the answer to this is our cultures and how we're affected by industrialism (saving face, conformism, homogeneous society, expectation that we can achieve anything through education and the feeling of personal failure when one doesn't become rich).

      Delete
    11. Again, if the answer is that Korea is one of the few countries that experienced hyper catchup growth, how do you explain the comparatively lower suicide rates of Japan, China, Taiwan?

      Delete
    12. For both HM and JW: Japan industrialized way earlier than Korea. The global trend is such that suicide spikes up, and then falls gradually. As I understand it, the Taiwanese economy did not (yet) go through the full-blown, neoliberal atomization capitalism. (Remember that Korea's suicide rate actually fell in the beginning stages of industrialization, from 1960s to 1980s.) The Chinese economy is even farther away from that style of capitalism. In fact, here is a prediction: in 20 to 30 years, China will experience a massive, incredibly high spike in suicide rate.

      Delete
    13. "As I understand it, the Taiwanese economy did not (yet) go through the full-blown, neoliberal atomization capitalism"

      Certainly possible, but even then I would think that there's a feedback loop between culture and economic system so we are not talking about two un-related things. It is possible in my view that Taiwan culture is less family-centric and more social-centric than Korea which would lead to a less harmful type of capitalism existing in Taiwan.

      Delete
    14. Here's a relevant paper by an NYU economist on the relationship between culture and economics.

      https://files.nyu.edu/rf2/public/Research/palgravePaperFinal.pdf

      Delete
    15. "As I understand it, the Taiwanese economy did not (yet) go through the full-blown, neoliberal atomization capitalism." Can you explain? Taiwan and Korea's growth rates since the 1960s aren't too different. The difference is that Korea is an oligarchy while Taiwan is less so. So perhaps it's the rich-poor gap that can explain the difference in suicide rates?

      If you subscribe to just the industrialization theory, there are so many things that cannot be explained. Brazil and Mexico were late industrializing but the suicide rates there are still low. While I agree that they didn't achieve the industrialization that Korea/Japan/Taiwan did, I would think that there would still be a correlation between late industrialization of countries and suicide rates compared to other non-industrialized countries. But there isn't. Mexico and Brazil have much lower suicide rates than other non-industrialized countries. Yes, there is a spike if you look at suicide rates within a country but one has to conduct a cross-cultural study if you want to see the effects of industrialization vs. culture on suicide. I don't know how this would be done -- are there two countries that had the same growth period that we can compare? The only 3 that come to mind are Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

      JW, I read the study... but it is inconclusive.

      Delete
    16. "The difference is that Korea is an oligarchy while Taiwan is less so. So perhaps it's the rich-poor gap that can explain the difference in suicide rates?

      I don't know that this is true. And even if Taiwan has a lower GINI coefficient, I don't think it is by that much. Do you know where I can see comparative data for the same time frame? Wikipedia is not very helpful.

      Delete
    17. I also am not convinced that genetics has nothing to do with this. Studies on the genetic link to depression are obviously out there and it seems to be to be entirely plausible that the explosive combining effect of hyper catchup industrialization and culture broke apart centuries old traditions which acted to suppress a genetic predisposition towards depression or emotional rashness that leads to suicide. Saying that "it can't be genetics because otherwise why aren't Koreans always highly suicidal throughout history" is not good enough of a way of explaining it away.

      Delete
    18. JW - regarding the oligarchy point - http://www.ide.go.jp/English/Publish/Periodicals/De/pdf/97_04_03.pdf This is from 1997 so it's dated but I saw something recently that stated that Taiwan still has a medium enterprise economy while Korea has an oligarchy (can't find it now).

      Here is an interesting article comparing the growth of Korea and Taiwan from the 1950s.
      http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic442978.files/Rodrik%20--%20How%20Korea%20and%20Taiwan%20grew%20rich.pdf It doesn't address the suicide issue but it's interesting if one is interested in economics.

      Delete
    19. Taiwan is a very capitalistic society, one that has clearly gone through recent industrialization. Honestly, it's past its peak of industrialization- the factories are, quite honestly, moving to China, often under Taiwanese ownership. (Foxconn, for example, is a Taiwanese company.) It is also a warm, sunny place where every kind of tasty fruit is available year-round and where all the food is delicious. Climate, especially sunshine, makes a huge difference in mood.

      China is interesting because, as such a huge and unfree country, different parts of the country have modernized at vastly different rates. Shanghai and Guangzhou are as modern and industrialized as you can get, and you see the high suicide rates in places like the Foxconn factories. (Foxconn, actually, does not have higher-than-average suicide rates for their workers- the suicide rate is just as high at everyone else's factories.) However, there are huge sections of the country that are effectively rural. My understanding is that these areas in China have relatively high suicide rates for rural areas, especially as rural lifestyles clash with the demands of modern bureaucracies and developers.

      Delete
    20. Let's step back from this discussion and ask a more fundamental question, in order to gain a more proper perspective -- can differences in culture cause significant differences in suicide rates? Looking over the OECD data over time and by country, it appears the obvious answer is YES. Otherwise how can we explain the wide differences for year 2010 between countries like Greece (3.2), Italy (5.9), Israel(6.2), Portugal (9.3), UK (6.7), and countries like Hungary (23.3), Japan (21.2), Slovenia (18.6), United States (12.0)? How in the world do you explain these wide disparities except by saying that cultural differences lead to significantly different suicide outcomes? Is it not plain as day that cultures which can differ by time and space will also cause baseline suicide rates to vary significantly also? I do not think that this obvious looking conclusion by any means proves that korean culture is a major cause of its high suicide rate. But it certainly does mean that the korean culture as a significant causal explanation cannot be dismissed out of hand.

      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you not see anything problematic about using televised soap operas to draw conclusions about an entire culture's attitude toward suicide?

      Delete
    2. I can't help myself but be appalled at how anyone can even craft a nonsensical imagination like this. Vitamin D? Korean dramas?? Seriously???

      Delete
    3. Yes, seriously. You can read "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration". If you have two hours, you can watch my favorite presentation by Sally Fallon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3ehzZ3yNyw

      And yes, you can see how younger Korean drama actors jaws and faces are narrower. What does it tell you? Lack of vitamins D, A and K.

      You are welcome.

      Delete
    4. Narrower jaws and faces were a result of changing beauty standards than lack of vitamins. If you look at the general population (not found on dramas), you'll see that hypothesis fall into ruin.

      Delete
    5. Have you even read "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration"? It is happening in ALL cultures, even in younger siblings, not only in Korean population. One more book for your to read -"Deep Nutrition".

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have to agree with jw and vb. Even among OECD, countries from warmer climates have less suicides while colder countries have more suicides. It's like seaonal affective disorder. Also, taiwan, singapore and hong kong were were also late industrializing but has much lower suicide rates. Sun makes people happy.

    Suicide among the old is high in korea. I read that it is because it is hard for the younger generation to take care of the old (due to rising costs, which is the industrial argument TK is making) so old people commit suicide so as not to be a burden on their hildren (cultural). I really think it is a combo of both plus the sunshine vitamin d factor.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Korean makes a strong case that culture has no direct effect on suicide rate in Korea. However, it may be the case that culture interacts with the primary independent variable in The Korean's hypothesis, namely, the commodication of individuals. The two part hypothesis might be stated as such: The commodication of individuals is positively related to suicide rate; however, in countries with culture X (i.e., Confucianism, collective culture, saving face, etc.), this relationship is stronger. Actually, The Korean hinted at a version of this hypothesis in the previous post, when he suggested that the effect of the current economic situation in American should increase the suicide rate, but that this effect may be less strong than in Korea since America has had an individualized capitalistic culture for longer than Korea.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good point, J. I also want to ask - TK, why the assumption that culture is static? (addresing your point that if it was due to culture, suicide rate would have always been high. The culture now is so different from the 70s when i was there. Old people kill thmselves now bc they don't want to burden their children. Young people kill themselves bc they are stressed from overcompetion and their chaemyun suffers when they fail. Just look at the explosion of divorce rates in korea. The interplay between industrialism and culture is what is causing this epidemc.

    Btw, greeland has the #1 suicide rate in the world and alaska has #1 suicide rate among the states. That has got to tell you something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The assumption is not mine. You mentioned 체면 as a potential driver for suicide. As far as I can tell, the importance of 체면 is fairly static. Similarly, everyone who made a "cultural" objection always explained by way of a static example.

      Delete
    2. Certain cultural characteristics may be static, but the effect of industrialization on the cultural characteristics as it relates to suicides may not be. This is what I think J is referring to. Meaning, there are certain cultural characteristics that are more affected by industrialization than others -- like chaemyun, conformism, and Confucianism => judging oneself by one's status in society.

      This may explain why Taiwan and Singapore have lower suicide rates even though it also became very rich around the same time as Korea. I don't know what cultural characteristics they have but one thing I know is that Singapore is a very international country and the populace may not be as conforming or hierarchical. Maybe that is also the case with Taiwan where you have the natives and then the nationalists. Plus, it's much sunnier there. Perhaps, people in countries without these qualities like chaemyun, conformism and Confucianism (and sunshine) may not care about their academic/economic failures as much Korea. So while those countries also may have had a spike in suicide rates correlated with industrialism (did it? I am curious), it wasn't as bad as Korea's. I don't think anyone is disputing that industrialism isn't a factor. I think what we're arguing is that culture also plays a role, especially in how industrialism impacts the psyche of people in that country.

      Delete
    3. Taiwan is strongly Confucian and hierarchical. But in the economic system, there are many more small enterprises- it strikes me as more entrepreneurial. Also, it's sunnier.

      Delete
  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ban all sweets and junk food for pregnant women? That has got to be a joke...right? I currently live in Korea, and I do not see any evidence that kimchi needs to be "reintroduced".

      Delete
    2. They add monosodium glutamate and sugar now in most ready-made kimchi and sugar into homemade kimchi.

      Delete
    3. Also, there is corn starch (GMO) and other additives in commercially and sometimes homemade kimchi. They store kimchi in plastic bins (cancer, elevated estrogen levels, BPA). This is NOT how it was made 100 years ago.

      Delete
  8. In America, the notion that suicide is utterly senseless and there just isn't an acceptable reason to take one's life is very, very prevalent.

    I think that to an extant - Koreans think the same way - but not as strongly as American do. If a CEO in Korea gets caught red handed doing something really shameful, and he commits suicide, Koreans are naturally sad about the event - but they seem to accept it as a somewhat normal course of events. It doesn't come as a shock.

    While Americans say things like it's cowardly, cruel, selfish . . . you put your friends and family through so much grief . . . you can always start over, etc, etc. Koreans don't really seem to think about or dwell on these things.

    Is this a reflection of culture? I don't know.

    ReplyDelete
  9. VB, you lost me on this. Sunshine? Yes. Nice beaches/relaxed lifestyle? Yes. Nutrition? I don't see any evidence of that.

    I think the prescription can be threefold:

    (1) Change people's attitude about suicide: I read that to curb suicides off of Mapo bridge, they started writing signs like "Did you eat lunch today?" "We care about you." "Remember your loved ones." They said this has been working. One student said that he went there to jump but became curious about what the next sign was and then he kept on reading and ended up crossing the bridge. I also think we need to stress that suicide is a COWARDLY and SELFISH act. You're taking the easy way out while leaving your family to suffer and feel the shame.

    (2) More mental health help: We need to make suicide prevention hotlines and mental health clinics more accessible. Since there is stigma attached to it, they need to emphasize anonymity.

    (3) Better welfare system: Korea needs to help those in need and do a better job closing the rich-poor gap. East Asian countries have abyssmal philanthropy stats. South Korea is the best of the group at 27% of the population giving to charity. Japan is 17%. China is 11%. Compare that to UK (highest at 78%) and the US at 60%.

    Or look at this stat - official development assistance stats of OECD countries by % of their gross national income: Korea is dead last at 0.10% and Japan is third from last at 0.18. Is this cultural? Is it because we're late industrializing countries?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Helen, I guess I was not clear enough. Let me be a little more specific for you:

      Industrialization ------------------>

      Introduction of processed foods, sugar, western diet, pasteurized milk --------->

      Nutritional deficiencies/ changes in gut flora --------------->

      Mental health problems/ depression/ autism/ other health problems --------------->

      Rates of suicides go through the roof (plus the cultural aspect)

      Industrialization IS the cause of high rates of suicides, but indirectly.

      I would agree with you on all three, except for #2 - you can and should prevent most mental problems by providing proper nutrition for expectant mothers and growing children. Better food choices lead to less mental problems.

      Also, your#1 item is going to be very hard to achieve, but some steps can be taken. If I were the president of South Korea, I would start a campaign against junk food for children and future mothers (even before pregnancies). After childbearing age they can eat whatever they want, they will just die faster or develop autoimmune diseases, even cancer, etc. People need to know this.

      Delete
  10. TK, as always, excellent post! Though, there are two things that I'm curious about. One is how are suicides currently being recorded for the books, and how (well) were they recorded in the past. I think this would be interesting to look at, a history of this. And the other thing I'm curious about, is hemp in Korea. I know it was a very important crop for it's multiple uses, from making hanbok to herbal medicines and etc, and that it grew most everywhere until Park Chunghee completely banned it in the 70s... hmmm not sure where I'm going with this, never mind :) but again, great post great series!

    ReplyDelete
  11. In political circles, most of the explanation for increased suicides is that rapid industrialization of Korea and its effect (or degradation depending on who you ask) on its traditional culture. It'll be interesting to see what impact the expansion of the welfare state in Korea will have.

    http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/02/19/how-capitalism-creates-the-welfare-state/

    Here, elderly abandonment seems to drive their suicide rather than some cultural tolerance for it. It looks to me that Korean culture has changed so rapidly and abruptly to the point that playing the culturalism card would be a hard task. Though I could agree that suicide became a part of the culture in Korea in the last 15 years or so.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/world/asia/in-korea-changes-in-society-and-family-dynamics-drive-rise-in-elderly-suicides.html?hp&_r=1&

    ReplyDelete
  12. While I agree with the explanation of rapid industrialization and economic gains as the main source cause for the elevated levels of suicide in S Korea, I also think you are failing to acknowledge the effect they have had on the culture. Whether prevalence of processed food, materialism, Western values etc, these things are a by product of rapid industrialization and has caused a shift in Korea's cultural values in a way that has ramped up the hyper competition. You reject the role Korean culture may have on the rate/cause of suicide by pointing out the low numbers from 1980s and and inferring that if suicide is somehow correlated to Korean culture, the suicide rate would be consistently high, then and now. You seem to be only examining hard, science stats (suicides rates low in 1980s, rates sky high now= due to rapid industrialization) and dismissing the intangible impact the industrialization has had on cultural shifts and values which are not necessarily measurable straight as numbers. I'm a Korean American as well (immigrated to U.S. at age 9) and from my limited point of view, there is too much pressure in Korea to succeed monetarily and status wise so that your family can be proud of you, pressure to get into good school, pressure to be number #1, pressure to have designer status symbols, pressure to be thin, on and on. All this pressure leads to hyper competition and impossible standards of perfection. A vicious cycle of battle starting with education and all the way to competing for the few job slots at a good company. And if you make it that far, there is the pressure to work long, long hours and competition for promotions. . . imagine the hysteria you hear about well to do New York parents trying to get their kid into the best pre school in NYC area and amplify it to a country. Anyway, I attribute the high suicide rate to a harmful hyper competitive environment caused by industrialization and shifts in cultural values. As for the sad increase in elderly suicide, I attribute a big part of that to the cultural shift from when it was a given that children took care of their elderly parents. (Am writing this on an iPhone so please excuse the grammar mistakes, etc.!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should read the second to last paragraph of the post a little more carefully.

      Delete
    2. I did and the emphasis is on industrialisation AND shifts in cultural values, two different factors but perhaps one caused by the former. I really do think there is a cultural component to the alarming rise in Korea's suicide rate but it's murky as to what they are. If the Korean govt could reduce the cutthroat, hyper competitive environment, there wouldn't be such intense pressure and stress on people. . . less suicides.

      Delete
    3. The Korean government is trying. They are trying to curb the hagwon system (curfew is at 10 pm), etc. The problem is that you have an overeducated population and lack of suitable jobs for these educated people, which is what is causing even more competition. The same thing is happening in China now that so many universities are cropping up. No one wants to work at factories anymore even though they actually pay more than many white-collar jobs there because educated people think they're too smart for factory jobs. The only solution I can find is that the Korean government needs to promote more venture capitalism and reduce unfair competition practice (i.e. they need to help entrepreneurs start their own businesses and crack down on bad business practices that eliminate competition). They also need to promote foreign investment, which they are trying to do.

      Delete
    4. I like Helen's response to this: It is very important for people to remember that no one is above good-paying jobs (if they are at a minimum, ethical). Educated populaces are wonderful to have. In fact, they are essential. But they need to be educated in the areas in which demand is highest for their skills.

      Delete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete

To prevent spam comments, comments left on posts older than 60 days are subject to moderation and will not appear immediately.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...